Couple use wedding to fight brain drain in Nepal

By David Caprara   |   March 16, 2017 at 10:30 AM
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KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 16 (UPI) -- In the dusty southern plains of the Terai that run along the borders of northern India and the southern Nepal, a lack of economic opportunity and fulfillment through work often drives youth elsewhere to pursue their dreams. For those who make it out and achieve success, there is very little impulse to take those gains and replant them in the dustbowl of one's origin.

This is a problem that Ravi Kumar has sought to tackle. A great deal of work went in to planning his wedding last week, but it is likely that even more time went into planning the launch of a digital literacy initiative that he set off the day before his wedding.

Kumar, 29, grew up in Janakpur, where unemployment levels are high and opportunities for learning digital skills are scarce. In some areas in the Terai, such as Dhanusa, up to two out of every three households have someone working abroad, usually as physical laborers in Gulf states.

"My house was literally in a swamp," Kumar recalls. "I had to walk through snake-infested standing water every day on my way to primary school. Once I was bit and nearly died."

Kumar made it out of the swamp alive, and after high school he immigrated to the United States to study at Buena Vista University and later at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He now lives and works in Washington, D.C., where he met his fiancée Mia Mitchell, 28. They decided to hold their wedding in Kumar's hometown, and doing so brought on an unshakable feeling that they should make their wedding about more than themselves.

"In Nepal and other South Asian countries, weddings are usually seen as a chance for ostentation and display of wealth, which most families actually don't even have," Kumar said. "Dowry is high and there is a lot of money wasted. Mia and I wanted our wedding to help break this trend and to contribute our money to something that will make more of a lasting impact than photos of ourselves to show off to family and friends."

What they agreed on was the foundation of an initiative to spread digital literacy across Nepal through their non-profit, Code for Nepal, that could help provide free training for communities to learn the digital skills they need to advance in the 21st century workforce. Instead of having wedding registry, the couple decided to have friends and family donate to the non-profit to jump-start this project.

"We are happy that we can help contribute to something that is larger than ourselves," Mitchell said.

"Education in Nepal is very much centered around Kathmandu," Kumar said. "Our goal is to spread opportunity to those who do not live in the city."

The Terai is an area where the local population has been known to voice strong concern over their lack of opportunities, which in late 2015 culminated in a massive blockade that nearly shut down trade across the country. As is true in any country in the world, lack of opportunity is like a prairie of dry grass where the fires of social unrest can be sparked at the slightest provocation. If these fields are watered with the rains of constructive programs for economic and personal growth and well-being, however, there will be a greater balance and a chance for flourishing and prosperity.

The digital literacy initiative was launched to provide such opportunities. The launch, which took place March 9, one day before Kumar and Mitchell's wedding, took the form of a conference that brought together over 10 lecturers in various professional fields from around the world. Locals packed the classrooms for active discussion of how they can benefit.

Speakers shared their thoughts on topics such as computer engineering, reporting for news outlets, women's rights and international development. Over the course of the year, 25 scholarships will be awarded to women across the country from a pool of 250,000 rupees (about $3,800) in donations. Another 200,000 rupees ($3,000) is being donated to a local non-profit to recruit computer instructors with support from Mozilla. Laptops were donated from the United States.

"It was not easy to plan for both all of this and our wedding," Kumar said. "Sometimes I think my wife feared I cared more about the project than our wedding."

Support has been encouraging.

"We received donations from friends and family that made the logistics of running this a lot smoother," Mitchell said.

Projects like this that are aimed at enriching communities require a great deal of effort to maintain if they are to endure beyond a symbolic gathering. Maintaining this momentum beyond launch will be a critical challenge, but Kumar said he is up to it.

"Janakpur is just the beginning," he said. "We hope to launch further initiatives in places like Biratnagar and also all across Nepal's remote hill regions. We want this all over Nepal."

"What this is really all about is addressing brain drain -- this idea of people gaining personal success but cutting off their roots," he said. "If we are fortunate enough to achieve success we should strive to bring it back to the places where we came from so that we can all have a chance."

On Friday, the couple were married. Soon they will return to the United States, but their work has just begun.

"My dream is that I can give at least one child an opportunity that they wouldn't have otherwise had that will allow them to grow and become a leader," Kumar said. "If at least one boy or girl goes on to create a project that will help this community flourish, I have achieved my goal."

Follow David Caprara on Twitter @Caprarad.

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